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Senator Marjory LeBreton talks to media in Senate Foyer on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday, May 9, 2013 regarding an audit on Senators housing expenses.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

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John Crosbie billed his ill-fated 1979 budget as "short-term pain for long-term gain." Today's Conservatives are pursuing the opposite approach to the Senate ethics affair: short-term gain for long-term pain.

By calling in Auditor-General Michael Ferguson to examine senators' expenses, even as Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson considers the $90,000 payment from former chief-of-staff Nigel Wright to Senator Mike Duffy – and the RCMP independently look for evidence of criminal wrongdoing – the government is trying to demonstrate to Canadians that it takes this spending scandal seriously, while also punting it into 2014.

The Conservatives buy themselves time, at the risk of the whole thing blowing up again next year.

Is it worth that risk? That depends on whether the accountability question becomes the ballot question in the next election.

Accountability is the watchword right now on Parliament Hill, as the parties race to demonstrate that each is more committed to open and honest government than the other.

Just look at three private-member's bills that are making news: Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber's Bill C-461 would force the disclosure of the pay and benefits of senior public servants. Another Tory, John Williamson, introduced legislation Monday that would strip MPs and senators of their publicly-funded pensions if convicted of a major crime.

While Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux's bill would copy an American law that requires party leaders to publicly endorse advertisements. No doubt the Liberals hope that the Tories will tone down their attack ads if they end with: "I'm Stephen Harper and I approved this message."

But the government moves are the ones that matter. The Conservatives will never submit to opposition demands for a public inquiry into whether and how certain senators improperly claimed living or travel expenses. Nor do they want some retired judge holding open hearings into why Mr. Wright decided to write a personal cheque to cover Mr. Duffy's questionable claims.

But they know that the Senate expenses affair is eating away at their already-tattered reputation for open and accountable government. So Marjorie LeBreton, Leader of the Government in the Senate, has proposed that the Auditor-General be called in to examine the expenses of all senators.

The move allows the Conservatives to punt the issue to the autumn or, more likely, until 2014, when Mr. Ferguson is likely to release his report. (As an added bonus, there is always the possibility Liberal as well as Conservative senators may be caught in the AG's net.)

But the fact remains that a report will come out and it will be made public – possibly around the same time that the Supreme Court rules on whether or how the Senate can be reformed or abolished.

To mix metaphors, punting this scandal to the Auditor-General may lower the political heat now. But it could bring everything back to a boil in 2014, with the next election that much closer.

The Conservatives are unlikely to win that election if the central issue is government accountability. As we saw this week, they have taken to investigating reporters, such as Robert Fife of CTV and David Pugliese of the Ottawa Citizen, whose stories were based on publicly available information.

But the Conservatives may have a longer-range strategy in mind. There are indications – tentative and reversible – that the Canadian economy is strengthening, with car sales up and consumer debt down.

Stephen Harper may be hoping that Canadians will shrug off the latest scandals and other alleged abuses of power and vote with their wallets for a party that, by 2015, will have balanced the budget and launched another round of tax cuts.

The hope could be that, by this time next year, the pain of an Auditor-General's report, the Ethics Commissioner's investigation and possible criminal charges will be soothed by the return of good times.

It's a heck of a gamble. But to paraphrase another former Conservative politician: sometimes you have to just roll the dice.

John Ibbitson is The Globe and Mail's chief political writer in Ottawa.